PASADENA: NASA’s Mars science rover Curiosity performed a daredevil descent through pink Martian skies late yesterday to clinch an historic landing inside an ancient crater, ready to search for signs the Red Planet may once have harboured key ingredients for life.
Mission controllers burst into applause and cheers as they received signals confirming that the car-sized rover had survived a perilous seven-minute descent NASA called the most elaborate and difficult feat in the annals of robotic spaceflight. Engineers said the tricky landing sequence, combining a giant parachute with a rocket-pack that lowered the rover to the Martian surface on a tether, allowed for zero margin for error. “I can’t believe this. This is unbelievable,” enthused Allen Chen, the deputy head of the rover’s descent and landing team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles.
Moments later, Curiosity beamed back its first three images from the Martian surface. NASA put the official landing time of Curiosity, touted as the first full-fledged mobile science laboratory sent to a distant world, at 10:32pm Pacific time (Monday 0532 GMT/ 11:17 NST).
The landing marked a much-welcome success and a major milestone for a US space agency.
But what next?
In the next two years of NASA’s landmark robotic mission on Mars, scientists are eager to explore the Gale Crater, where water is believed to have pooled many years ago and where Curiosity rover touched down early today.
Next up, Curiosity will haul the Mars Science Lab at least half-way up Mount Sharp, a towering five-km Martian mountain with sediment layers that may be up to a billion years old. But it may be a full year before the remote-controlled rover gets to the base of the peak, which is believed to be within a 20 km of the rover’s landing site. “We are going to make sure that we are firing on all cylinders before we blaze out across the plains there,” John Grotzinger, project scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory, told reporters shortly after the rover landed.
“Possibly within a year or so we could be at the base of Mount Sharp, because the place we landed on looks pretty darn interesting and we just don’t want to rush out of there without having studied it real well.” First, a series of checks to the car-sized vehicle must take place, which could take weeks. Then comes the unavoidable bickering and questions of, ‘Are we there yet?’ that another NASA scientist likened to taking a cross-country family trip with all of his coworkers.
“My version of the surface mission is that it is like going on a family vacation and driving from here to Chicago,” said Richard Cook, flight systems manager on the project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.